Innocent or guilty, if Assange's rights aren't upheld then neither are ours
I’ve been having heated exchanges with a number of Greens on Twitter about the Assange case. Seeing people whose politics I identify with tweet “he’s a rapist” or “he’s guilty” frankly makes my blood run cold. I like to think myself a member of a liberal political movement committed to due process, the rule of law and human rights not a lynchmob. Clearly it’s better politics to button one’s lip and say nothing but it’s hardly principled to do so. What might be more useful is a calm overview of what is happening in this case.
At stake are the human rights of three people: Julian Assange and his two accusers. His accusers have the right to see their complaints of rape and sexual assault properly investigated, and if prosecutors decide there’s a case to be answered Assange should stand trial.
Meanwhile Assange has the right to a fair trial. He also has the right not to put himself in jeopardy of rendition to the United States where he might face a military tribunal and the possibility of the death sentence by leaving the UK where his activities with Wikileaks have not been judged criminal.
Separating these two cases is hard because the British and Swedish governments make it very hard. According to the Ecuadorian government which, though it has its own human rights issues, has now offered Assange political asylum, the Swedes have refused to give assurances that they won’t allow him to be extradited or rendered to the United States and the Swedes haven’t contradicted that claim. Thus we face a damnable Gordion Knot of competing interests. So let’s start at the beginning and remind ourselves how we got thus far.
Warrants for Assange’s arrest were initially issued late on Friday August 20th 2010 on one charge of rape and another of molestation. The following day those warrants were cancelled. Eva Finne, a Swedish Chief Prosecutor said: “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.”
In the days that followed the women’s case was taken up by Claes Borgstrom, a lawyer and some time spokesperson for Sweden’s Social Democratic Party on gender equality. Borgstrom is a committed campaigner, however his involvement in the case inevitably brought charges that it was becoming politicised.
The fact that police subsequently questioned Assange for an hour in Stockholm on Monday 30th August 2010, when he denied the charges, and also that two days later Sweden’s Director of Public Prosecution, Marianne Ny, decided to resume the investigation, only gave those alleging a political motive more ammunition.
Assange left Sweden in late September after an application for a work permit had been refused and, it would appear, after avoiding attempts by Ny to interview him. He’d been in the UK for several weeks when, on November 18th, Ny went to court to secure an arrest warrant for him.
Meanwhile the hacking community came out heavily for Assange. He was well known on the hacking circuit and many of those who hacked websites, avowedly in his cause, saw the entire episode as an attack on Assange’s work with Wikileaks – which gave the hacker motto ‘information wants to be free’ into its most dynamic and visceral incarnation ever.
Wikileaks had already upped the ante in its freedom of information campaigning in April 2010 by releasing video of a US helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians including a Reuters crew. Then it distributed hundreds of US diplomatic cables – the first major tranche (of 220) being put out on November 28th with thousands more following over the next year.
Quite disgracefully hackers and supporters outed Assange’s two alleged victims and they were subsequently vilified in social media. Even Assange’s London defence team, assembled to fight Sweden’s attempts to extradite him, were careful not to demean his accusers. One of the most neutral accounts of the key proceedings reviewing the evidence is provided by The Guardian. His critics read his defence counsel’s remarks as an admission of guilt. What doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that there were sexual relations but the issue of consent is. His defence team have not conceded that he committed a sex crime.
That is for a court to decide. At present no charges have been filed in Sweden. Assange is wanted for questioning. He has repeatedly offered to be questioned in London and that offer has, apparently, been refused. Instead he exhausted his appeals against extradition and was due for deportation when he sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy. Now we have arrived at a juncture where the UK government is apparently hinting it will enter the embassy to seize Assange.
So, what to make of this mess.
Firstly it is impossible to dissociate Assange the FOI activist from Assange the accused. He has seriously angered some extremely powerful interests, notably the United States government.
The US has been expanding its jurisdiction for several years. The Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer cases are examples of UK citizens pursued for the US though they committed no crime in the UK and never set foot on US soil. The situation has escalated into a major issue in the UK because of the perceived (disputed) difference in the weight of evidence each country needs to produce to secure extradition, with critics saying the bar is set far too low for extradition to the United States.
Likewise European arrest warrants are under scrutiny because British citizens can be extradited and held on remand without charges being levelled and on evidence that wouldn’t bear scrutiny in an English or a Scottish court.
So we face a situation where Assange believes that if sent to Sweden he will be delivered into the hands of the United States and face prosecution, possibly for treason (there is an irony if that is the case since one can only commit treason against one’s own state).
There’s precious little evidence to persuade Assange’s supporters that this isn’t a stitch up.
Put aside the claims of his defence team that his alleged actions wouldn’t be a crime if they had taken place in the UK. That may be so, but plenty would then ask if they shouldn’t be.
Put aside the fact that he hasn’t been charged in Sweden. Rather ask yourself this: why, when Britain’s own record on sexual violence against women is so shamefully bad, is the UK government apparently talking about violating the sovereign territory of Ecuador’s embassy in London in contravention of the 1961 Vienna Convention.
Its efforts in the cause of two Swedish women, whose allegations are yet to result in charges, are out of all proportion to the efforts it makes on behalf of thousands of British women who face sexual violence every year. Still we wait for better street lighting, for more rape suites, for better training for police officers handling allegations of sexual violence and better public education.
And look at the statistics: in 2006/7, 800 people were convicted of rape despite one in 200 women reportedly being raped in that year – a conviction rate of around 1%. Would the UK government go to so much trouble in any comparable case? Has it ever prosecuted any foreign diplomat accused of rape in the UK without the explicit permission of that envoy’s government?
None of this means that Assange should be let of the hook. Whatever he may have achieved in the cause of freedom of information does not absolve him of any crime he may have committed against his accusers. He should face charges as and when they’re brought. Every facility should be offered to the Swedes to question him so that a decision on charges can be made. However given that his fears of being extradited to the United States could hardly be said to be without foundation. Rather the British government should arrange with Stockholm that does not happen. No such arrangement has been sought or offered and I suspect it won’t be.
It leaves his two female accusers bruised and abused not only allegedly by Assange but also by some of Assange’s supporters and by the legal systems and governments of several countries. They deserve justice and we should support genuine efforts to see they get it.
However we should not be prepare to see their plight used by those who would surrender our hard won rights to a government in Washington that preaches one thing at home and pursues an entirely hypocritical line when it suits it abroad.
There’s another victim in all this – the cause of liberty. We’re slowly but surely losing any moral standing we have to take despots around the world to task. Every failing on our parts is used to justify abuses many times worse elsewhere. Our real power comes from our principles. Shame on those who sell them so cheap.